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Laura T. Murphy’s Azad Nagar: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt is a powerful and moving story of a ‘slave revolt’ in the heartland of India that not many know about. And it did not occur in a bygone era – it happened just two decades ago, at a time when India had come to be known as an economic powerhouse. The reality, as many know, is that the boom in economy did nothing to improve the lot of millions – the ‘slaves’ in question included.
Behind the curtain of prosperity and plenty lies a dark picture which many Indians are ignorant about or prefer to overlook because it spoils the flaunted success story. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 40 million people enslaved globally. Uttar Pradesh, where the revolt took place in 2000, is home to 8% of the world’s poor. Despite the beaming faces on government advertisements, the state is among the three poorest states in India.
In Sonbarsa, not far from Varanasi – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency – members of the tribal Kol community had for generations been serfs for influential local landlords and moneylenders.
Despite forcing the Kols to labour in their farms and stone quarries, they were never paid in cash. Some got a little more than a kilogram of rice a month. The labourers and their children were denied education, they often ate only one meal a day – because there was nothing more to consume. The slaveholders had a tight physical and psychological control over the labour, lives and minds of the transgenerationally enslaved men and women.
If anyone showed the slightest sign of challenging the domination of the Patels, as the landlords were known, they were fined, held captive, tortured, abducted and, in some cases, murdered. Sexual assault in the enslaved community was not uncommon. The Kols had revolted in the past, during the British rule, and suffered immensely for their courage.
The situation began to change when Uday Pratap Singh, otherwise from the Kshatriya caste and known to his friends as Kanchuki, began visiting and organising the Kols silently. He tended to hold meetings in the middle of the night when he could talk to the labourers unmonitored by landlords or overseers. He moved from hut to hut and lived among the tribals. He received timely and invaluable help from a respected criminal defense attorney, Amar Saran. Predictably, Kanchuki got death threats from those who felt threatened that their power was being challenged.
Tensions were building up. The landlords’ attempts to bribe Kanchuki or to collectively punish the Kols were not leading them anywhere. As it often happens, a trigger for the revolt was provided when a member of the landlord community, Virendra Pal, punched Kanchuki in the face, in front of his admirers. It was one thing for thugs to beat, rape and even kill the Kols, but they could not bear the humiliation heaped on their Kanchuki.
Virendra Pal’s fate was sealed.
One day, after a mass rally of Kols, violence erupted when the landlords’ men staged an unprovoked attack on those who had stayed behind. Some of the aggressors were on motorcycles and they tried to run over the women. Virendra Pal fired a gunshot in the air. There were as many as 50 Kols and only eight Patels. As the tribals fought back for once, several Patel men were injured. Virendra Pal got killed.
Retribution was swift. Kols who had run away to escape a police crackdown found on their return that their tiny hamlets had been burned to the ground. Everything they owned had been looted or torched. Many were also arrested and jailed. Amar Saran used the media to make the story public. He also urged Free the Slaves, an international body in Washington DC, to intervene.
After a prolonged legal battle, the court granted a lease to a collective of 27 Kols to run their own stone quarry. The tribals refused to work for the Patels anymore. They began a new life – as free people. They decided to call their area Hullabol. The name was soon changed to the more appealing Azad Nagar.
There were many twists and turns in the story as the Kols charted a new destiny. Ironically, as the Indian state opened up the area to super rich mining companies, dispossessing both the Patels and Kols, a reluctant truce was forged between the two previously antagonistic communities. But forced labour came to its demise because it was no longer lucrative or even feasible to maintain it. In any case, the Kols would not accept it any further.
The author – a professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK – says Azad Nagar, although real, cannot be located on a map. Today, the area is visibly transformed. Many young men from the area have migrated out of Uttar Pradesh in search of work – and in some cases, have done reasonably well. Problems, however, remain.
Azad Nagar’s success does not mean slavery doesn’t exist in today’s India. It is a blot on the country that serfdom of a bygone era still exists.
M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.